It's time to apply some real solutions

Will we continue with approaches to social problems that fail or will we choose those that work? asks Laura Black.

The research is clear: New Zealand now reliably ranks in the bottom quarter of almost all inter-country first-world comparisons of social statistics. Increasing infant mortality, child abuse, crime rates, imprisonment rates, adolescent morbidity. It's rare to come across a statistic and not feel ashamed.

You may be as tired of reading about what should be done for - or about - people who are "failing" in our society as I am. Yet there are solutions; not necessarily obvious or the ones we keep reading about, but neither are they obscure, or untested, or especially difficult.

We know what works and what doesn't.

Let's start with the "solutions" that don't work.

1 Good intentions and a good heart, solving it for people, wrapping them in cotton wool, leaving it up to them, or intervening only when the family implodes.

2 Tickling a particular voter base with initiatives that have already failed here and overseas.

3 Coercion and punishment. "Getting tough" on beneficiaries, making an example of exceptional cases and snatching away support.

4 Short-term programmes, pilot programmes that go nowhere, single-issue piecemeal approaches, providing endless choices, removing choice, cash incentives, and requiring people to "earn" help.

5 Targeted services. Even though they look more cost-effective, they often carry the self-defeating consequence of making assistance harder to reach and labelling the target group "failures", thereby acting as their own barrier to help.

6 Pretending that gross economic conditions have nothing to do with individual tragedies.

None of those "solutions" have deflected New Zealand's downward statistical trend. We are all living with the reality of being bottom of nearly every table: the long-term consequences should worry all of us.

Yet let's imagine, for a moment, that there are things we could do that would actually make a difference and that we have the power to put them in place.

Imagine not having to find an extra billion or two every year for an additional prison. Think of the health savings with less depression, less obesity, fewer non-accidental child injuries, less drug and alcohol abuse, and less domestic violence.

Think of the savings in welfare payments. The increased productivity and higher tax take. But most of all, of the savings in human lives lived more fully and more productively.

1 Higher wages, more jobs. The life performance of an individual can be more or less predicted by the economic circumstances they are born into (Infometrics, 2011).

2 Cross-party agreement. It's taken New Zealand 30 years to slide to the bottom of the tables; we aren't going to climb to the top again in just three.

Yet every time the government changes, welfare agencies start from scratch. Funding, quality assurance mechanisms, direction and intention of social services, early childhood and second-chance education all get reconfigured and another year or two is lost. The costs for everyone, particularly the taxpayer, are prohibitive and non-productive.

3 Skilled, experienced, research-informed and stable assistance, focused on the family's long-term goals. The opportunity for the family to build trust with their expert.

4 Building independence in families and individuals via a realistic assessment of their opportunities and skills and the challenges in the way, securing their commitment, and then providing mentoring and training in the skills needed to reach those challenges - clearing away the clutter of failure (Duncan et al, 2006-11). Then extending this independence beyond families, to streets and neighbourhoods (Putnam, 2008-10).

5 Prevention. This is the cheapest solution by far, research validated, and hugely successful when aimed at children aged 0-6, particularly when based on early childhood education with curriculum-based activities, and broader support for the family built around the child's learning progress.

It is most effective when the child learns how to "persist through difficult circumstances" (Gluckman 2010). In New Zealand, the significant things to solve are a) how to reach the population that would most benefit from this intervention b) how to build in skilled broader family support and c) ensuring the high quality of provision required for this intervention to be successful.

6 Putting it right for the youth and adults who were born into disadvantage a generation or more ago and are now living out the after-effects. Typically, these people are related to the children most in need of preventive help (see above), so this work also interrupts the intergenerational cycle. But it is expensive work and requires the long-term investment of rigorous multi-disciplinary engagement - education, mental health, physical health, parenting, budgeting, family functioning and more. Again, few providers are set up to deliver this kind of wrap-around help.

Of course, everyone has a story of someone they know or that a friend knows who can't be bothered, who likes living on a benefit, who wants to be a bludger. And yes, those people are out there.

But, they are less than 1% of those on benefits (Welfare Working Group, 2009) . Of those on benefits, 99% want a better life and are prepared to work for it, but need help and a fair go.

Jim Wallis has said that "the way you think and feel about the world is shaped by what you see when you get out of bed in the morning". There are too many children, and families in New Zealand today, who get out of bed and see only misery. We could be doing something about it now.

 - Laura Black is chief executive of Dunedin's Methodist Mission.


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